Party time in Austria

The 2016 edition of the bi-annual trade fair VieVinum commemorated the 30 years since the Austrian Wine Marketing Board was founded. Felicity Carter reports.

Party time in Austria
Party time in Austria

The Big Austrian Party at VieVinum is one of the most fun events to come round on the European wine calendar. It combines the chance to taste multiple fine wines with a long summer night, in a stately setting.  This year the welcome by Willi Klinger, managing director of the Austrian Wine Marketing Board (ÖWM), was even warmer than usual. To celebrate the organisation’s 30th birthday, he was joined during the evening by the former managing directors: Michael Thurner, Bertold Salomon, Walter Kutscher and Wolfgang Lusak. The five men had much to be proud of.   

Born of scandal

In the early 1990s, Austria, which was then a provider of cheap, sweet wine to West German supermarkets, had experienced a series of difficult vintages. The thin wines of those years meant that contracts were in jeopardy.  Some winemakers plumped up their wines by adding diethylene glycol, a chemical that, even in small doses, can damage human organs. A West German laboratory detected the fraud in 1985 and the uproar got worse when it was revealed that the Austrian government had been aware of the situation. 

According to a New York Times report at the time, German callers jammed hot lines, police arrested a man named Anton Schmied for dumping 4,000 gallons into a sewer — poisoning trout in nearby streams — and the mayor of Rust, in Burgenland, called it “the worst disaster to hit the region since World War II”. The scandal spread as far as the US and Japan. 

There were many wine scandals in the 1980s, not least of which was the Italian methanol scandal, which killed 17 people and poisoned 60 more. What makes the Austrian scandal relevant today, is what happened next.

The Austrians decided to clean up their industry. They founded the Austrian Wine Marketing Board, which set out to raise standards and encourage Austria’s wine producers — typically family owned, with less than three hectares — to concentrate on quality wines and raise the value of their product.

Today, not only is quality up, but Klinger was even worried at one point that Austrian wine has become too posh in some markets. “We had a too high average price in Britain, one of the most competitive markets, where we are white tablecloth only and we are not in the normal business,” he says. But, fortunately, Grüner Veltliner is now in several UK supermarkets, priced between £7.99 ($11.30) and £9.99.

Klinger sounds relieved.

The fair today

The show is held inside the Hofburg Palace in the heart of Vienna and it’s always packed. Hundreds of tables are set up and reflected in the gilt-edged mirrors of what was once the seat of the Habsburg Empire, and by 10:00 am, the place is full and people are opening bottles and pouring at top speed.

Saturday morning opened the traditional way, with Klinger giving an update, first in German and then in English, on what’s been happening in Austria in the previous two years;  the former actor delivers the jokes with panache in both languages. He went through the Seven Elements of Uniqueness strategy that Austria has pursued to raise its quality:  the Climate (cool); the Land; the Grapes (30% are Grüner Veltliner); the Culture (“Please visit! We need money to keep the buildings in good shape!”); the People (“Austrians are party people.”); Respect for Nature (“We have a dramatically innovative scene.”); and Food (“I love French food and Italian food, but I think we could be the third great food culture.Of course, it’s a little bit hefty from time to time. And there’s our pastry!”).

Klinger also announced that there’s new legislation covering the production of Sekt, Austria’s sparkling wine, so there is now a quality pyramid in place. There is also a new vineyard designation. Every single vineyard in Austria will now be labeled Ried, the equivalent to the German Lage.

Not all the news was good. There have been frosts, and a suggestion that yields will fall as low as 1.7m hl in 2016, instead of the usual 2.45m hl. That means price rises for some Austrian wines, and allocations for others. And the Ministry of Agriculture have cut the budget by between half a million and a million euros.

Natural wines on the rise

Anybody needing a break could head to the lounge of distributor and retailer Wein & Co, where there were tastings of natural, orange, amphora, and biodynamic wines, which are clearly coming into their own as a category. Austria prides itself on its sustainability – 20% of the production is organic, with 679 organic winegrowers. Biodynamic, and other sustainable producers were also out in force, including the 19-member biodynamic group, Respekt-BIODYN. Founded in 2007, it now includes four renowned German wineries. 

As always there were side events to educate the trade and press and showcase how far Austria has come. This year, notable events included a Great Vertical of vintages from 1988 to 2009. 

Many of the attendees were too young to remember the traumatic days of the mid-1980s, but those who could were very happy to raise a glass in recognition of  the way Willi Klinger and his predecessors had raised a fine phoenix from some very unpromising ashes. 



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